Words by Bruce McMichael
Photos courtesy of Fen farm
Baron Bigod, Stinking Bishop and Cornish Yarg almost disappeared overnight from British menus, meals and cheese lovers’ dining tables. The crushing effects of restaurants and hotel kitchens slamming down the shutters to protect against the Covid-19 virus almost killed off the country’s artisan cheese makers and their uniquely named products.
Jonny Crickmore, farmer and maker of the raw milk Baron Bigod cheese, said, “people panicked and stocked up on dry goods such as flour and toilet rolls, while restaurants closed. But they didn’t buy cheese”.
Farmers and cheese makers had to pivot their business overnight. “You can’t just switch off cows. The milk keeps coming” says Jenny Linford, food writer and author of the encyclopaedic reference book Great British Cheeses. Film footage of farmers pouring thousands of gallons of milk onto fields and down the drain filled TV news bulletins for a couple of days at the start of the lockdown and helped fire-up the industry to find new ways of much more getting hand wrapped Caerphilly, hard pressed Cheshire or some Stinking Bishop washed rind-washed cheese to a new set of customers, home cooks.
Dairy farms were into the Spring Flush period in which milk yields increase and hard cheese production is ramped up for Christmas. It’s traditionally a busy time for farmers and cheese makers. Food writer Linford says artisan producers were desperate. “They were confronted with a brutal economic truth. Their traditional sources of livelihood and income had been snatched away overnight“.
“Traditional cheese makers live and work in a fragile economic bubble. They had to reimagine their businesses overnight” she says. Pre-lockdown, these evocatively named cheese were popular on boards in fine dining restaurants offering customers real flavours, textures and tongue teasingly deliciousness. The loss of sales was so immediate and dramatic and shocked the industry and its supporters into action.
“Unlike much of continental Europe, the UK doesn’t have an ancient wine making culture; cheese is our most important and obvious link to terroir, says Theo Crutcher, a professional food judge and cheese lover. “In England’s west country local variations in Cheddar, derived from the unique grazing environment of a particular area, are as important as the appellations and crus of Burgundy wine”.
Save British Cheese became a rallying cry for farmers, makers and mongers as sales and marketing teams focus on selling to home cooks. The Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA) called for solidarity with its members and soon had superchef Jamie Oliver making Instagram videos about cooking with cheese and Prince Charles posting about his favourite Cheesy Egg breakfast.
Oliver urged his millions of social media followers to buy artisan cheese and his slogan of Save Our Farmhouse Cheeses resulted in tonnes of fresh, semi-hard and hard cheeses being sold in specially packed boxes. The first delivery included a Stichelton, a traditionally made Stilton; Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese and Baron Bigod. “If we lose these guys (cheesemakers) that would be a huge bit of our food culture gone” Oliver says.
Baron Bigod is a creamy, white bloomy-rind cheese handmade on Fen Farm in Suffolk by husband and wife team Jonny and Dulcie Crickmore. Jonny has become one of the faces of the artisan British cheese revival, and lately survival, and as deputy chairman of the SCA is a witness the cheese world from farmers, to makers, mongers and consumers create sustainable and profitable routes to market; from field to cheeseboard. Lockdown arrived on Friday, March 23, 2020 and will be remembered as the day when the relationship between seller and buyer changed, with many hoping it the shift would last long after our lives open up again.
Nottinghamshire’s Colston Bassett Dairy, makers of Stilton cheese reportedly lost 60% of their market over night. “But rather than scare consumers into buying more cheese, we offered positive stories amidst the onslaught of negative Covid-19” says Crickmore. Well, his call to action struck a nerve and Brits are now buying tonnes of artisan, farmhouse made cheeses and saving the makers from keeping the shutters drawn forever.